Rap-name trends are funny things. Ten years ago, everyone had “Lil” in front of their names. In the past few years, we’ve seen newer, weirder tendencies. There’s the new wave of Babies: Lil Baby, Sada Baby, DaBaby, Bhad Bhabie, Haiti Babii, Sahbabii. There’s been the strange profusion of female rappers with Doll in their name — so many, in fact, that Asian Doll changed her name to the somehow-even-worse Asian Da Brat. And lately, we’ve also had the three-letter guys: YFN Lucci, OMB Peezy, FBE Choppa, the probably-going-to-prison YNW Melly. Those acronyms get confusing fast, and sometimes they lead to cease-and-desist letters, which is why NBA YoungBoy had to become YoungBoy Never Broke Again. But they also represent something oddly encouraging: a whole new generation of rappers willing to put their affiliations before their own names. It represents the return of the rap crew.
Anyone who saw Of Mics And Men, Showtime’s excellent and endlessly watchable Wu-Tang Clan documentary series, knows that rap crews are chaotic, unmanageable things. They are also magical. At least in the abstract, rap crews are beautiful things. Talented young people from disadvantaged circumstances come together, present themselves as a cohesive unit, and help will each other to the top. The problems arrive if and when they make it. That’s when egos come into play, when solo careers and crew duties come into conflict, and when people start asking questions about why their checks are so small. Rap crews are not, by and large, built to last. Very few make it more than a few years, and it seems like a minor triumph that Wu-Tang, the greatest rap crew of all time, have now reached enough of a detente that they can once again do shows together, even if they’re still nurturing decades-old grudges and don’t always seem that happy to be around each other.
Rap crews are different from rap groups, which are typically focused units and which themselves don’t always last that long. Rap crews are messier, more anarchic confederations. De La Soul are a rap group; Native Tongues were a rap crew. And part of the deal was that you’re usually not entirely sure who, exactly, is in a rap crew. (Wu-Tang had nine official members — or 10, once Cappadonna got involved. But then there were all these loosely affiliated artists: Killah Priest, Street Life, Shyheim The Rugged Child. And eventually, Wu-Tang members started sprouting their own crews: Raekwon’s American Cream Team, Ghostface Killah’s Theodore Unit.) Sometimes, rap crews are organic — groups of equals founded back before anyone got famous. Sometimes, they’re the friends that come along for the ride when a rapper gets famous. Sometimes, they’re what happens when rappers get famous and start signing all the talented and unaffiliated rappers they see. (That was basically what Roc-A-Fella was before it dissolved.) Sometimes, they’re weird combinations of all three. But loosely defined, rap crews are groups of solo artists functioning together. They don’t rely on internal chemistry, the way rap groups do. There’s a shared sense of camaraderie, but there’s also a competitiveness.
For a while, every star rapper had to have a spinoff crew album; it was almost a requirement. Sometimes, those crew albums were presented as crew albums, like G-Unit’s Beg For Mercy or Ruff Ryders’ Ryde Or Die Vol. 1. Sometimes, they were presented as stars’ solo albums; Puff Daddy’s No Way Out and Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia were basically crew albums. There aren’t too many classic crew albums, but most of them are fun, and some of them offer us the chance to hear canonical rap figures operating in low-pressure situations, not forcing themselves to make classics. That’s the beauty of overlooked albums like the Dungeon Family’s Even In Darkness or or the Baller Blockin’ soundtrack or the two State Property albums. And a lot of times, the best crew albums aren’t albums at all. They’re fans-only regional curios like DJ Screw’s mid-’90s Screwed Up Click cassettes or the Diplomats mixtapes that once flourished as slimline CDs sold at the same Canal Street cubbyholes where you could buy fake designer handbags.
During the lean years of the mid-’00s, most of the once-powerful rap crews dissipated, often contentiously, and the artists who mattered were, by and large, solo artists. A few of them assembled their own crews. Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music was, for a while, a factitious dream team that never quite lived up to its potential, where Lil Wayne’s Young Money team and Rick Ross’ Maybach Music both launched a few colossal careers and a few duds. More recently, rap groups have returned, mostly thanks to the crossover success of united-by-blood family acts like Migos and Rae Sremmurd. And crews are on their way back, too. In the past few years, there have been plenty. Odd Future launched a thousand thinkpieces and then atomized, leaving behind a few fascinating solo careers in its wake. A$AP Mob — possibly the forebears of all these new three-letter guys — cultivated an aesthetic identity but lost much their direction with the untimely death of of mastermind A$AP Yams. J. Cole’s Dreamville crew continues to carve out its own identity. The TDE Crew members all seem to be operating independently of one another, but every once in a while, they’ll all come together — as on last year’s Black Panther soundtrack, a low-key crew album in its own right. For me, though, the most interesting rap-crew action is happening on a smaller level right now.
Consider Beast Coast. Beast Coast is about as loose as a rap crew can get. It’s the combination of one already-established rap crew — the Joey Bada$$-affiliated Pro Era — with two already-established rap groups, Flatbush Zombies and the Underachievers. For years, Beast Coast members have been shouting out their expanded crew at occasional intervals, but there hasn’t been any thought about presenting Beast Coast as a single entity. This year, that changed. Last week, Beast Coast, now a formalized unit of nine rappers, released the crew album Escape From New York. It’s a fun listen, but it’s a curious one, too. All the members of Beast Coast have been functioning in their own groups for years now, but they share a sensibility, an aesthetic. All of them come from the same two Brooklyn neighborhoods, and all of them share an affinity for ’90s boom-bap and spaced-out weed talk. On Escape From New York, they come off as an egalitarian collective, not a superstar vanity project or a combustible combination of solo artists.
Joey Bada$$ is almost certainly the most famous member of Beast Coast, but he’s not a superstar, and he never dominates the album the way historic rap-crew figureheads have done. Instead, all the members of the group blur into an almost-undifferentiated haze of flickering staccato flows. Similarly, the beats — many of them from crew member Erick The Architect or affiliate Powers Pleasant — are samey, but in a pleasant way. They thrive when they’re making lightly gothy, minor-key five-minute flexes, so that’s what they do, again and again. The one rapper who persistently stands out is Flatbush Zombies member Meechy Darko, he of the gravelly wildman rasp. That’s exactly how Ol’ Dirty Bastard once stood out in a Wu-Tang context. Throughout Escape From New York, Meechy and the other Beast Coast members seem to follow the Wu-Tang blueprint as closely as possible. They don’t shoot liquid lightning through your veins the way Wu-Tang did, of course — it’s not even close. But there’s a familiar, comforting warmth in hearing them try.
Something different happens on You Can’t Sit With Us, the album that Chicago’s Pivot Gang released last month. Pivot Gang is another family unit: Saba, his brother Joseph Chilliams, and their childhood friends MFn Melo and Frsh Waters. Saba’s late cousin John Walt was once a member, too. Last year, Saba released Care For Me, a lush and heavy-hearted album that was largely about Walt’s death. That had to be a hell of a thing to put together. You Can’t Sit With Us, by contrast, must’ve been a relief. It’s a breezy, relaxing album, an excuse for these for guys to talk shit with each other. In the tracks on the album, you can hear the way these guys push each other, and they way they learned to rap by rapping together. They share a style, conversational but technically precise. They can be thoughtful and tough and funny at the same time, and listening to them is like listening to a bullshitting session from your four smartest friends. Saba is the clear center, but he’s a cult favorite, not a star, so this isn’t a St. Lunatics situation. Instead, it’s a low-key beauty of an underground rap album. It breathes.
But the crew that I can’t stop watching lately is Detroit’s Bandgang, a team of young Detroit rappers who make soft-spoken, guttural, fascinatingly specific drug-dealer raps. Right now, Detroit’s underground is exploding with creativity, and a lot of that can be attributed to outsized characters like Sada Baby. The Bandgang guys don’t work like that. Instead, their energy is contained and coiled. Their beats are tense horror-movie slaps, and they rap in terse but detailed crime-life narratives, writing with a granular eye for place and scene. They sound rough and deadened, but they can all write, and they can all rap. Together, they’ve built a whole underground-rap world for themselves. You can jump down a Bandgang YouTube wormhole and get lost completely.
Last year, the crew’s three most visible members — Bandgang Lonnie Bands, Bandgang Masoe, and Paid Will — released the massive 30-song mixtape In Too Deep. Last month, Bandgang Lonnie Bands followed it up with the solo project KOD, one of the most compulsively listenable rap albums I’ve heard all year. Bandgang do what a rap crew should do: They display just how much talent there is in this small group, and they make you want to know more about who these guys are and what their whole deal is. I feel like I’m only just beginning to understand how good they are.
Rap crews can go so many different ways. They can go like the YBN Crew — a group of interesting and talented young rappers who tend to completely lose all their personality whenever they get together. Or they can be like Brockhampton, whose individual members don’t seem all that compelling but who go to strange and rewarding places as a group. They can be like SOB x RBE — once a group, now probably more accurately described as a crew — who seem to be perpetually on the verge of breaking up, but who end up making truly exciting music despite that tension — or, who knows, maybe because of that tension. In any case, it’s confusing and wonderful to suddenly have so many crews running wild out there. Long may they and their confounding initials thrive.
1. BlocBoy JB – “Mercedes”
A couple of weeks ago, I bought a Mercedes. It’s a 2011 M-Class with a couple of previous owners, and I got a deal on it. It’s already stalled out a couple of times, but I couldn’t give less of a fuck. I’ve been driving junker minivans for my entire adult life. (I’m tall; I need the leg room.) I never even considered the idea that I could be a Mercedes person, but holy motherfuck, I love driving that thing. So I consider it to be cosmic justice that BlocBoy JB’s new song is called “Mercedes” and it’s his hardest shit in at least a year. I can drive around in my Mercedes listening to “Mercedes,” and if you’re judging me for it, that’s cool. Keep talking that shit from your Honda.
2. YG – “I Was On The Block” (Feat. Valee & Boogie)
YG’s new LP is decent beach reading — not bad, but pretty disappointing from a guy who’s first two albums were outright classics. But anytime he wants to do Valee flows next to the actual Valee, I am going to clap like a fucking seal. Great squeaky-voiced Boogie verse, too.
3. RJ Payne – “Butcher Meets Leatherface” (Feat. Benny The Butcher)
RJ Payne: “See, I train more rapider / Chainsaw massacre / Heavy metal bullets knock the paint off your Acura / Sharpshooter, I could knock the fangs off of Dracula / Propane, I brought this cocaine into Africa.” Benny: “I sold every drug in the city, and then blew up / Like I just ate the same spaghetti that Em threw up.” I shouldn’t need to sell you on this.
4. Yella Beezy – “Rich MF”
A few months ago, the Dallas rapper Yella Beezy was shot three times. He was making rap videos from his hospital bed, and now he’s back at 100% and being tapped as a potential star. That’s a huge comeback — almost as huge as Pharrell showing up with his most early-’00s Neptunes-sounding beat since “Stir Fry.”
5. Boosie Badazz – “Off The Flap”
Boosie ain’t shot no marbles with you.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
me tracking down Obie Trice and bringing him a pair of boots because Moby needs to get stomped out again pic.twitter.com/AubJkGztwN
— Al Shipley (@alshipley) May 22, 2019